It’s been a while since we’ve been convinced about who will be a season’s champions before start of the campaign. Chelsea from the start and nothing in their four straight wins has shaken that faith. Manchester City, however, should be their toughest test so far — tougher even than the trip to Everton that produced a 6-3 carnival — and City cannot afford to lose any more ground in the race. They may need a big performance from City’s big man.
As champions present and — in my view — future prepare to collide in the Premier League’s game of the weekend, it’s strange to find Yaya Toure being portrayed as a weakness. Strange but understandable in the wake of his woefully ponderous UEFA Champions League performance for Man City on Wednesday.
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The Ivorian midfielder, rightly hailed as one of Man City’s towers of strength as they lifted the 2011-12 and 2013-14 titles, has returned from the World Cup an oddly diminished force and the stiff challenge posed by Bayern in Munich all too starkly exposed his inadequacies. Fernandino, his partner in the first line of midfield, was overworked trying to fill the gaps Toure left and Paul Scholes wasn’t alone among observers in noting Toure’s apparent laziness.
It wasn’t a bad team performance at all, even though goalkeeper Joe Hart was the star of a defeat caused only by the deflection that took Jerome Boateng’s shot past him in the 90th minute. But Toure has been long recognized as, like captain Vincent Kompany, playmaker David Silva and striker Sergio Aguero, a key component of the City pattern and his poor form must concern coach Manuel Pellegrini as the club prepares to take on Chelsea at the Etihad, despite his recent remarks.
"It is not fair for me to criticize what Yaya did in the last game," Pellegrini told reporters on Friday. "In this team — at least in my way of thinking — when we win or lose it is because all the team did well or did bad. I think everyone knows what his best performance (is), of all the players, and are trying to reach that performance, all of them. I don’t agree Yaya has all the responsibility about the game we played. Yaya always has commitment with the team and the squad, and his mates. He doesn’t have problems about that."
The reasons for Toure’s decline are hard to analyze. The obvious one is that he’s 31 and both physically and mentally jaded after seven years of top-level competition with Barcelona and City. But the additional concern for City fans is his commitment to the cause after the bizarre episode in May when he claimed the club had forgotten to wish him a happy birthday.
It turned out that he had twice been presented with cakes on a trip to Abu Dhabi to meet the club’s owners. Then his agent, Dimitry Seluk, argued that City had made Toure feel such a "nobody’" that he might move back to Barcelona or to Paris-St Germain. In the end, it was agreed that he should stay at the Etihad and continue to pick up his salary of a nobody, a reputed $17 million a year.
Toure is no stranger to nonsense. Another of his claims last season was that, in common with other African players, he did not get the credit he deserved, so he might also feel he is being excessively criticized now. But $17 million is a lot when you’re playing like a nobody, so he can expect a further barrage if someone more like the old Yaya Toure does not turn up to face Chelsea.
Just as there was no hiding place in the Munich midfield, this area of the game will be crucial against Jose Mourinho’s team, which has strengthened considerably with the purchase from Barcelona of Cesc Fabregas.
Although Chelsea also had a disappointing result in the Champions League, being held to a 1-1 tie at home by Schalke, strike sensation Diego Costa will be back for the trip to Manchester and that makes them favorites to repeat the victory earned by Branislav Ivanovic’s goal at the Etihad in February. Seven goals in four games makes the Brazil-born Spanish international as dramatic an entrant as any in Premier League history.
But there are less spectacular reasons to favor the side from London and Nemanja Matic is one of them. The big, energetic midfielder was just beginning to show how clever a move it was for Mourinho to bring him back from Benfica when Chelsea made their statement in February. Although their challenge eventually faded, he continues to deliver just the sort of defensive work Toure has so signally been failing to provide.
Yes, Matic may be technically limited by comparison with the lavishly gifted Toure — it’s an understatement, for Toure at his best is the full midfield package — but he has helped Chelsea to become the best balanced team in the Premier League, with no obvious weakness and enviable choice in every position except, perhaps, main striker, where the ageing Didier Drogba was an unimpressive stand-in for Costa — whose fitness has to be managed — in midweek.
So it’s all set up for Mourinho’s men to increase their advantage over the champions to eight points. What could prevent it? The real Yaya Toure standing up and, with the in-form Silva, reminding Chelsea of City’s pedigree. That’s the most plausible scenario. Then Toure could have his cake — and eat it.